Zookeepers and biologists at Novosibirsk Zoo in Siberia believe they have produced a taxonomic first. They have shared images of a "liliger," called Kiara, whose birth earlier this month raises a number of questions.
Like what's a "liliger"?
Lions and tigers share a common ancestor, and are extremely close on an evolutionary scale. Thus their shared genus (Panthera).
But big-cat cross-breeding is not unheard-of in captivity. As they're different species, the resulting offspring are hybrids.
Outside of the public imagination and a cottage industry, the lion-tiger hybrid is perhaps best-known as the favorite animal of the unlikely hero in the cult indie film "Napoleon Dynamite
," "bred for its skills and magic." (See trailer below.)
There are plenty of examples of zookeepers creating "ligers" (the offspring of a lion sire and a tigress) and "tiglons" or "tigons," a cross between a tiger sire and a lioness.
As a hybrid born to a lion father and a liger/ligress mother, Kiara is one generation removed from those creatures.
The zoo and a number of popular-science sites suggest she's the first of her kind.
So why did they do it?
The Novosibirsk Zoo says it specializes in cats, martens, ungulates, grouses, and cranes (not those cranes). We're hoping to hear from Novosibirsk's zookeepers themselves on what -- beyond the obvious attention -- they expect to yield from the project.
Mother, ligress Zita, in her enclosure at Novosibirsk Zoo
It could represent an effort to lure Russia's president to Novosibirsk, given his penchant for photo ops with tigers
, polar bears, and, most recently, cranes
. Except that Vladimir Putin says his interest lies in conservation efforts, inappropriate given such a cross-bred animal's place in nature.
Because biologists tend to agree that it simply wouldn't happen in the wild. Tigers and lions don't share habitats, and if they did, they'd be more likely to tear each other to shreds than to procreate. So there's little obvious point to studying their cross-bred offspring.
"National Geographic" quotes big-cat expert
Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, on the unlikely scientific value from such pairings:
In the wild, an animal like Kiara would "probably be very mixed up," Packer speculated. "Lions are genetically predisposed to be very sociable and cooperative. Tigers are genetically predisposed to be very ornery and solitary."
While zoos in some countries do cross-breed cats (probably for the publicity value), U.S. zoos typically do not. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for zoos in North America, does not approve of ligers, said spokesperson Steve Feldman, and no AZA zoos breed them. Modern zoological institutions, he said, instead focus on wildlife-conservation programs.
Packer, who has devoted his career to studying lions, can't imagine why zoos would breed liligers and other such hybrids.
"In terms of conservation," he said, "it's so far away from anything, it's kind of pointless to even say it's irrelevant."
So it's hard to say what's in store for Russia's little liliger.
One liger-breeding website
suggests she'll never outgrow her cuddly disposition:
Ligers are extremely social animals. They are happy and content living with both lions and tigers. They also display genuine affection for their human handler's and trainers. Contrary to popular belief, ligers are not a "man-made" creation. They are the result of a male lion and a female tiger that have been raised together and decide they like each other enough to breed.
But lion-tiger cross-breeds are regarded by some others as more unpredictable than lions, whose instincts lend them to social structures that can be manipulated by zoo (and circus) handlers.
Kiara with a keeper in Novosibirsk
Says Gordon Grice, who plumbs "the night side of nature" on his DeadlyKingdom.com blog
, in his slightly hysterical book "Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals":
These [lion-and-tiger] hybrids are called tiglons, ligers, and other names, depending on which species served as sire and which as dam, and even on the grandparentage. These crosses are a mere stunt of human ingenuity rather than a viable line. Crosses have severely injured children at zoos and circuses. In 2008, a liger killed its keeper at Safari's Animal Sanctuary in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
Reports quote the zookeepers in Novosibirsk as saying they won't be ready to unveil Kiara for at least a month.